Preschool is too late: how families can alleviate the word gap

5 Apr

The news that children of low income families have often developed a significant word gap by age three when compared to their wealthier peers brings up the role of the family.  Parents and caregivers matter.  A lot.  Just like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone started with baby college–or school on how to be a parent–helping all children to reach their full potential needs to involve the family.

Let’s look at Hart and Risley’s three key findings.

1. The variation in children’s language abilities is relative to the amount parents speak to their children.

2. Children’s academic successes at ages nine and ten are attributable to the amount of talk they hear from birth to age three.

3. Parents of advanced children talk significantly more to their children than parents of children who are not as advanced.


Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. “The Early Catastrophe” (2004). Education Review, 77 (1), 100-118.


Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. “The Early Catastrophe” (2004). Education Review, 77 (1), 100-118.

There’s not a lot of room for interpretation here.  Oral language interaction impacts children’s language, literacy, and even their IQ scores.  Studies also point out that this language interaction begins from birth–parents respond to their infant’s noises by cooing and making nonsense noises back.  You don’t have to wait for a child to start talking to begin to develop their language centers.  This is surprising news for some, and as a new parent I can see why.  When a baby is barely tracking you with her eyes, it’s hard to imagine that she’s processing any part of what you’re saying!

Parent education and training is important.  While studying child-directed speech, Meredith Rowe, an assistant professor from the University of Maryland, found that “the relation between socioeconomic status and child-directed speech was mediated by parental knowledge of child development.” In other words, low-income mothers didn’t talk as much to their children because they didn’t know it was important, whereas middle and upper middle class mothers were more likely to be informed about the latest in child-development research and respond accordingly.

How to help inform parents?  It’s a tough challenge.  LENA (language environment analysis) provides a pocket recorder that sits in a child’s clothing and records their language interactions over the course of the day.

0000192_300The tool has proved to be a powerful motivator for families.  Just seeing the print-out each day creates an increase in language directed at a child, because parents of non-judgemental, visual data of what they are saying.  LENA functions a lot like a fitbit–just knowing how many steps you take (or words you say) motivates you to do more the next day.

Providence, Rhode Island is also beginning a new program about creating family conversations, where home visitors will work with families to create more verbal interactions with their children.  The will visit families once per month, review the LENA data, teach families strategies for increasing verbal interactions with their children, such as how to read a book together, or tell your child about your day, and then set goals with the family for the next month.

With children’s language centers developing from birth, early intervention with those who spend the most time with a child is key.



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